NL Wild Card position-by-position: Cards-Braves
As recently as two years ago, this would have been a totally different answer. But over the past two seasons, Yadier Molina has developed an offensive game to match his elite defense. Molina is a National League MVP candidate and one of the game's best all-around players. Braves catcher Brian McCann will sit in favor of David Ross. McCann has struggled offensively since August due to a shoulder injury, while Ross offers much better defense for the same reason.
In the closest thing he's had to a full, healthy Major League season, Allen Craig emerged as a major force, hitting for average and power and leading the Cardinals in slugging percentage. Freddie Freeman is a better defender and a power threat, but Craig has an edge at the plate that outweighs Freeman's defensive advantage. Freeman also scuffles against lefties, but that shouldn't be a problem against a team lacking in left-handed relief.
Both teams have as many questions as answers at the keystone. Atlanta's Dan Uggla followed an All-Star first half with a massive second-half fade, though he regained his footing in September. He's an iffy defender, but one of the better hitters at second in the Majors. His opposite number, Daniel Descalso, is a quality defender but a lesser hitter. The Cards can mix and match at second, but Descalso is likely to be the guy.
It might be Chipper Jones' last game, and the effect of that emotion will be something to watch. As far as the tangible, Jones is still an excellent hitter and a solid third baseman. Yet a healthy David Freese has a little more power and is a little better in the field. It won't surprise anyone if Jones does something spectacular, but for right now, the better player is Freese by a tiny margin.
Andrelton Simmons was a top prospect, is a brilliant defender and has been a revelation at the plate. Pete Kozma has also surprised offensively and held his own defensively in place of the injured Rafael Furcal, but his Minor League record suggests that Kozma's big numbers are more likely a mirage than Simmons'. And even if the offense is similar, Simmons' defensive edge is too big to overcome.
Matt Holliday endured a puzzling second-half slump, and even though he broke out of it in late September, he still hasn't started hitting for power again. But he's an elite hitter and a quality defender. Martin Prado is an underrated player, an essential table-setter and a valuable and versatile tool for manager Fredi Gonzalez, but he's not the star-level player Holliday is.
Michael Bourn is like a player from three decades ago -- a speedy, defensive-minded leadoff man who could have played for Whitey Herzog in the 1980s. Jon Jay isn't quite the baserunner or defender that Bourn is, but he's been a better hitter this year, and frankly better at leadoff duties, with a significantly higher on-base percentage. This one is close, but the slight edge goes to Bourn and his defense.
It's yet another close one. Jason Heyward enjoyed an excellent bounce-back season, finding his power once again while playing terrific defense. He's no longer the on-base threat that he was as a rookie, though. Carlos Beltran looked like an MVP candidate in the first half, faded in the second, then surged down the stretch as the Cards charged into the playoffs. Heyward is the better defender, but Beltran is the better hitter.
A healthy Cardinals team, one that had Lance Berkman and Furcal at full strength, would have some very nice bench pieces. As currently constructed, though, there's only one offensive threat (Matt Carpenter) some nice versatility with Skip Schumaker. Atlanta has one of the game's best backup catchers (David Ross), a lefty-killer in Reed Johnson and a power threat against righties in Juan Francisco.
Bet you didn't see this matchup coming. Kris Medlen is one of the greatest stories in the game this year, and the Braves are undefeated when he starts. Kyle Lohse, like Medlen, throws strikes and keeps the ball in the park. Medlen misses more bats, and they both pitch deep into games. It's close, but the edge goes to the strikeout pitcher when October rolls around.
Jason Motte has had a great year. Craig Kimbrel has had a historic year. Kimbrel struck out half the batters he faced over an entire season and is a candidate for NL Cy Young honors. He's worked much less this year than last, so he avoided 2011's late fade. There's nothing wrong with Motte, who throws hard and throws strikes, but Kimbrel might be the best reliever in baseball.
The relief corps was a problem for St. Louis throughout the front half, but a trade for Edward Mujica and the addition of some youngsters has stabilized it. Atlanta had one of the best bullpens all year long, and still does. The Braves also have a huge advantage in left-handed relief, and St. Louis might really miss having a shutdown lefty against this Braves lineup.